Waffle Gardens

Figure 1: Waffle garden. Photo: Civileats (Courtesy of Curtis Quam)

Waffle gardening is a technique first used by the indigenous A:shiwi, or Zuni people, who have lived in Zuni Pueblo, New Mexico, for thousands of years. The technique uses compacted grids, dug and shaped just below ground level, with walls of varying heights. Each segment creates its own microclimate and provides shade and a wind barrier for the plants within (Thompson, 2019). 

Waffle gardens are the inverse of raised beds, conserving water and keeping water in the soil. They are specifically designed for dry, arid climates and can be implemented on large or small scales. They are easily accessed and maintained and use minimal water because they capture and retain rainfall.

The indigenous people of Zuni Pueblo have used the waffle garden method for thousands of years as an effective way to garden without using high amounts of precious water resources. The technique may be suitable in areas of the Pacific that are suffering from drought, loss of food production capacity, and desertification.

Read More

Name of NbS

Waffle Gardens 

Location

Waffle gardens can work on urban, periurban and rural scales; as community gardens or in private gardens.

Type of NbS

Created or constructed living ecosystems

Case Study

Zuni Pueblo Waffle Gardens and the Zuni Sustainable Agriculture Project

Zuni Youth Enrichment Project (ZYEP) Summer Camp. Photo by Sid Richadson Museum.

Relationship to Indigenous knowledge

Waffle gardens were created by the Indigenous people of Zuni Pueblo, to enhance food growing capacity in an arid, dry climate. They adapted the technique with their traditional ecological knowledge of plants, climates, seasons, and the soil. The strategy is fundamentally connected to Indigenous knowledge and methods of living that enable people and the earth to be in a reciprocal relationship. Indigenous knowledge and strategies do not necessarily have to be contained to the area they came from if the strategy, and meaning behind them are understood and acknowledged with respect, and cultural appropriation avoided. Gardening strategies that conserve water will become increasingly relevant as temperatures rise around the world, and we seek solutions to food sovereignty, food production, and water scarcity issues. Increasingly there has been a realisation that Indigenous knowledge can be the way forward in sustainable agriculture and gardening.

Climate change benefits
  • changes in rainfall
  • Desertification
  • Drought
  • loss of food production
  • urban heat island effect
  • reduced fresh water availability / quality

As the climate in Te Moananui Oceania changes, drought continues to have significant impacts on hydrological, ecological, agricultural, and socioeconomic systems (PDKE, 2024). Much like the people of Zuni Pueblo, the Indigenous local people of the Pacific Islands have endured cycles of drought for thousands of years, and understand the need for adaptive gardening practices. Waffle gardens are perhaps an opportunity to create local food resources, without using irrigation or watering. The base strategy can be adapted to local contexts, and adjusted based on rates of rainfall versus drought conditions. Waffle gardens could grow food, support local species, and enhance local biodiversity. 

Read More
Societal / socio-cultural benefits
  • food security
  • fresh water security and quality

As climate change continues to affect food security in the Pacific, it is important that people have strategies to grow their own food, and manage their own resources. Waffle gardening was first implemented by communities of people whose main resource was the land around them. The strategy used the natural landscape and climate to maximise food growing potential. There is an opportunity to encourage gardening and a connection to the land to grow food and other resources as the climate changes.

Read More
Ecological and biodiversity benefits
  • Cultural diversity and history
  • Education and knowledge
  • Food production

Waffle gardening is a way to keep an ancient gardening technique alive, and learn from the basic principles that make it so successful. It is increasingly clear that a way forward in dealing with climate change is rebalancing the built and living worlds, and reconnecting with ecologies. Waffle gardening uses an understanding of the earth, the climate, and natural vegetation to sustain vegetation growth on a small scale. On larger, global scales, those same understandings may feed into larger systems.

Read More

Technical requirements

A waffle garden is simple to construct and is traditionally created by people who shape them by hand as a family, or a community. There are no technical requirements, beyond opinion about the depth they should be dug at, the size of each waffle, and the height of the walls. 

Issues and Barriers

The soil used to create the traditional ‘waffles’ needs to be able to hold its shape. The traditional Zuni method was to build in clay-heavy soil. In Pacific contexts, appropriate soils will need to be assessed, or alternate materials used for the walls. 

While this method is an excellent strategy for areas with increased drought and higher temperatures, it will be less appropriate in areas where there are increases in rainfall. Increased rain means there is a higher likelihood of the gardens flooding. 

Opportunities

The waffle garden method has proven successful over thousands of years in a South American context. The strategy can be assessed and repurposed for a modern Te Moananui Oceania context, in areas that are suffering from increased drought, rising temperatures and desertification. To do this, alternative materials can be considered. For example, the traditional clay walls can be replaced by recycled or repurposed timber, to increase their stability and protect from erosion, and drainage could be added to ensure the waffle gardens do not flood above a certain level. The same strategy would be applied – gathering water from seasonal rainfall – but modern drainage techniques and material selection could bring this into a contemporary Pacific context.

Financial case

with local species. Even if it were developed to use different materials to shape the walls, the cost would remain low. Additional financial benefit comes from the ability of communities and households to grow their own produce. 

Figure 2: Zuni waffle gardens, circa 1919. Photo courtesy of Kirk Bemis. Civileats.com
Figure 3: Zuni gardens circa 1927, by Edward Curtis, via Library of Congress. Photo from Sid Richadson Museum
References